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Friday, December 29, 2017

The Road to a Park System for the Future

I drove with my family to Wisconsin and back for Christmas, with a minor detour through Chicago each way. Four days on the road gives you plenty of time to mull things over, and as I passed through the transitions between urban areas and open countryside, kicked in and out of cruise control interacting with the mixture of cars and trucks on the highway, and detoured through Chicago, I found myself thinking a lot about how park systems may look in the future. This may take some explanation, but please come along with me for this ride.

Driving in and out of urban areas is generally just drab. More often than not, buildings become more mundane and spread out, commercial signage grows larger and taller, and then eventually just seems to give up. Most people usually just call it "urban sprawl," even if it's a term without a real definition. But there are a few cities that have great gateways. New York did, once upon a time. Passengers arrived in the harbor by ship, passing alongside the welcoming Statue of Liberty as the skyline took shape as individual skyscrapers continuing to push impossibly higher as you drew nearer. Dramatic as it is to pass through the cut in the Palisades and emerge onto the George Washington Bridge, the city is a mere glimmer in the distance before disappearing into a bewildering tangle of ramps. Likewise, the helix of the Lincoln Tunnel provides impressive glances at the Midtown skyline, but then grinds through a toll plaza and squeezes through the tube before emptying onto congested, nondescript Manhattan intersections.

But Chicago has its moments. We drove along Garfield Boulevard on a side trip going both ways on this trip. Among my strongest memories in life is peering out the window as my cab drove from Midway Airport along the tree lined boulevard on my first trip to Chicago, when I moved to Hyde Park sight unseen to begin college. Exiting the Mad Max world of the Dan Ryan onto Garfield Boulevard invokes a somewhat similar sense of calm and wonder, a definite moment of arrival. Yet while the broad green space and regular spacing of mature trees is still great drama, each time I visit the boulevards on the South Side, the more acutely I feel they have been stripped down to mere scenery. In practice, the boulevards seem to do little to connect any activities between the parks. There is no flowing use of a system of parks, and the roadway design seems to cut off much opportunity. Yet even without the reality of real connective use, the mere vision is compelling and the spacing of greenery contributes to a more legible and enjoyable neighborhood structure. There is much still to be learned and built on from this old Olmsted pattern as our streets continue to evolve.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Chewing Gum on a Sign 15 Feet Over the Street

Stuck on a sign hanging over Broadway, out of sight of the throngs of workers and visitors crowding the sidewalks and unnoticed by the drivers passing below, are a lot of pieces of chewing gum. There's a few stickers stuck on there too. While generally invisible to ordinary New Yorkers, it is a shared experience of the thousands of tourists who pass mere feet below the sign while seated on the top of a double-decker bus. Some of these tourists are the people sticking the gum on there.

There are a handful of places where people have collectively created a kind of grotesque landmark by sticking their chewing gum onto something. The old gum tree in South Philadelphia and more extravagently, the gum wall in Seattle, come to mind. Compared to those, this sign is thoroughly unremarkable. Yet it shares the same fledgling crowd dynamic. All these locations emerge because something prompts others to follow the example of that first person who deposited their gum in an inappropriate place. At first, others just take enough notice to take advantage of the opportunity to discard their stale gum, until it reaches a critical mass and presents itself as an invitation to join the fun. In this case, it's possible to identify how this sign developed into the early convenience phase.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Vinyl on the Crash Blocks

When I was out the other night, I enjoyed the simple design intervention on the security barriers made from concrete blocks and jersey barriers around the Empire State Building. This was a welcome addition and customization of the NYPD Urban Design.

With some nylon covers and a handful of zip ties, they have created more a sense of place than the bland, white chunks of concrete. These are low-cost materials that are easy to install. Hiring a designer may have cost nearly as much as the fabrication and installation.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

My Secret Rose Garden

Between the lanes of traffic, a quiet path through a rose garden hides in plain sight. I have gone for a stroll there on several lunch breaks, and yesterday was the first time I have had any interaction with anyone at all. In essence, I have had a rose garden all to myself in the midst of America's busiest city.

The garden runs the length of several blocks of medians on New York City's West Street, otherwise known as the West Side Highway. Broken by intersecting streets, it is more accurately a series of gardens, although their character is mostly consistent from block to block.

There are no real entrances to the paths, making it ambiguous if they are actually open for public use. The purpose of the path is unclear, but it is likely there to provide access for the landscaping workers to maintain the sprinkler system and tend to the roses. To gain entry, you must step up a couple feet over a low stone wall. The path is plainly visible and there are no signs prohibiting entry into this publicly-owned space, but the lack of steps communicates that it was not intended as an entrance. It certainly does not meet the ADA requirements for a place designed for use by the public.

Over the course of the summer, some of the rose bushes began to overgrow the path. The ambiance of a lost place grew stronger as the plants seemingly took over the space.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

When Broken Windows Aren't Towed

The car was set ablaze by some arsonist for reasons that aren't generally known. Then it just sat there. The windshield was cracked. Portions of the body were melted and puddled on the ground. A camouflage duffel bag sitting in the back seat was visible from outside the car. After remaining there for a couple days, neighbors started submitting 311 reports to have it removed. It continued to sit there anyway.

The area where this car was torched is considered a "high crime" precinct. Despite this reputation, burned out or abandoned cars have long been a rarity as all of New York City has become safer and more orderly over the past several decades. Looking closely at this rare case is interesting, especially given the ongoing debates around the "Broken Windows" theory of policing.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Touring an Underground Art Gallery

When we are out for a walk on the weekend and see a real estate agent's open house sign, my family sometimes likes to be a bit nosy and explore the interior spaces of our neighborhood. I also like to hear how our community is being described to our new neighbors. When the real estate agents ask the standard question about how long we've been looking, we generally embellish a little and say we have friends who may be interested in buying a home in our neighborhood. It's only a partial exaggeration, and other than a little disappointment that we're not going to be their next sale, there's no harm. If it's a slow day, sometimes they're glad to have some company.

On a recent weekend, we walked up to see an apartment in a cooperative next to the neighborhood park, where we know a family. The apartment had some nice views of the park, but was otherwise rather unremarkable. The real estate agent was polite and professional, but had little of interest to say about the neighborhood. I wanted to go down to visit the basement, though. We had never been downstairs, but one of our elected officials has mentioned more than once that he enjoyed door knocking in the co-op because the buildings are connected through the basement, allowing him to go from one to the next once inside.

Once down in the basement, we were pleasantly surprised by a gallery of discarded artwork and a communal library. Pieces of artwork created a juxtaposition with the rough, utilitarian materials of the basement walls. At the same time, the prints and paintings mostly appeared worn, sometimes slightly damaged, complementing the roughness of their setting. There are other buildings in the area with basements decorated by their supers, yet this one stands out because of its larger size, which makes it more like a gallery instead of a crowded, kitschy nook.

The basement also housed the communal library, where residents left their old books and could rummage for anything of interest left by others. Unlike the typical stray bookshelf, this had the appearance of a small library. Arranged on attractive, mismatched bookshelves well proportioned for the space, and set next to a giant bank of electrical meters, it made the improbable impressive.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

From Collapsed Drain to Rain Garden

The drain on this park path collapsed years ago. Ever since, it has flooded. The standing water acts as a bird bath, but also collects trash and risks incubating mosquitoes. It may be time to rethink the design of this space to manage the stormwater differently.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Work in Progress

Sometimes it is difficult to understand why renderings for new buildings create concerns that could be easily avoided. Sometimes it's hard not to jump to conclusions, but those often don't stand up under scrutiny. The use of these images is relatively new, so hopefully they are a work in progress.

Take this example for a new building in The Bronx:

This rendering may actually be more accurate than most. The weedy overgrowth in the tree pits and below the retaining wall, as well as some tagging on the wall have all been retained.  But there are a number of inaccuracies. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Chronicles of Stolen Space: Department of City Planning

This is a series of posts about the failures of each of the various agencies that had a responsibility to stop illegal parking on public space at the Millenium Hilton and ensure it was properly built out as a seating area. Today we are looking at the Department of City Planning (DCP).

DCP is the agency responsible for setting the requirements for Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS). It is DCP's job to set design parameters to ensure these spaces actually provide public benefits, and this is a role it has taken seriously. What it has not done is follow up with real consequences when developers have not built out spaces according to those designs. The Millenium Hilton is a glaring example of the lack of follow through.

At the Millenium Hilton, the original Special Permit was issued to create a sidewalk widening. Using the space for parking under that original status was an egregious violation that never should have been tolerated. Instead of improving the sidewalk, the result was narrowing the sidewalk as the cars extended beyond the property line. Worse, the sidewalk was further degraded into a poorly configured driveway with the parking garage attendants using cars to force pedestrians out of their way.

Yet for some unknown reason, it seems DCP swept these abuses under the rug when it undertook its landmark study of all the POPS spaces in New York City back in 2000. They must have been painfully aware of the valet parking operation, yet the only indication of any problem was generically classifying the space as "marginal."

It is not clear if there was even any informal discussion between DCP staff and the building owners at the time. Perhaps that was part of the background for what came next. Whatever the case, the problems only became more indefensible.

In 2005, the Millenium Hilton applied to the City Planning Commission for a new Special Permit so that it could pursue additional retail opportunities. As part of its application, it promised to upgrade the space along Fulton Street from a empty sidewalk widening to an attractively designed seating area. The application went through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which entailed hearings at the local Community Board, which enthusiastically endorsed the improvements to its public space. The City Planning Commission approved the new Special Permit, with explicit references to specific drawings that clearly show improvements, such as curved benches, to make the space inviting and useful for its public users.

As part of this process, a Restrictive Declaration was recorded on the property binding the owner to building out the public seating area it had promised. The inescapable obligation to construct the space for the enjoyment of the public could not be any more clearly established:

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Split in the Stairs

It had been a while since I took the stairs going up to the Morris Park subway station.

Sometimes you notice something new when you revisit a place you used to frequent often. This time, the split in the stairs caught my attention.

Even with its basic, undecorated design, I suspect there was still a Beaux Arts sensibility with a desire for symmetry. I am not so sure the double stairs with a shared landing were based on a functional program.

If there were a functional consideration, it was most likely the convenience of providing the most direct route for all paths of travel. It is possible the designers may also have recognized some benefits for long-term maintenance. The redundancy does provide the ability to keep one side open while while repairing or replacing the steps on the other side. Such long-term considerations do not seem to have been common in that era.

However, it wasn't the idea of keeping the stairs functional while keeping them in good repair that caught my attention. It was the ability to choose a different side if you didn't like the looks of somebody on the stairs. It probably makes little real difference if there is a determined mugger, but the greater feeling of openness and escape routes relieves the feeling of being trapped that typically makes stairs like these feel so sketchy.

Whether intended as anything more than attractive symmetry, there are some clear benefits to this split double stair. It is likely to be a more expensive solution; it requires more space and additional construction, but these are tradeoffs worth weighing for future projects.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Rainy Spaces

The city is different on rainy days, sometimes in surprising ways we don't always notice. Light and shadows change their shape. Subway stairs become even more congested than usual as passengers break stride to fight with their umbrellas. Outdoor seating empties out and the doorways in public buildings bustle a bit more.

On first glance, the empty seats in public plazas make these public spaces appear lifeless. It may seem their functions have all been suspended, awaiting the return of better weather. Plazas probably look like fairweather places.

But if you stop for a moment, as you stand in the rain you will see many plazas still serve some use. More often than not, the spaces they form cut corners off the street grid. For everyone rushing to get out of the rain, the plaza is the direct route. Steady streams of fast moving pedestrians course through the plazas.

Of course, as they grip their umbrellas, trying to keep the wind from tearing them inside out, most people hardly notice the shortcut afforded by these little public spaces. They may also be unaware of the effect of the paved surfaces underfoot. Whether they notice or not, the higher quality pavers or flagstones in the plazas provide relief from the drabness of the gray concrete sidewalks, grown darker from soaking in the rain.

On rainy days, plazas do not serve their usual purpose as places to rest or spend time with others. Their aspect changes, but they remain important spaces serving the needs of the public.